Recent History of Morocco

Morocco's strategic location has shaped its history. Beginning with the Phoenicians, many foreigners were drawn to this area.

Morocco was colonised by the French and Spanish in 1912 after bitter fighting. An anti-colonial, nationalist movement sprang up first during World War II. Conflict during the 1950s led to France and Spain recognising Moroccan independence in 1956.

Sultan Sidi Muhammad then established a constitutional monarchy under which the monarch had wide powers. In 1961, he was succeeded by Moulay Hassan, who became King Hassan II.

One of Morocco's longest running international disputes has been over Western/Moroccan Sahara. In the 1970s, thousands of Moroccans began to occupy this territory, which was under Spanish control until 1976. Morocco argued that this territory had originally been part of Morocco and should therefore revert to Moroccan control now that the Spanish were gone. Mauritania to the south argued a parallel case.

However, the Mauritanians withdrew their claim over the disputed area in August 1979, and Morocco occupied the rest of the territory not previously under its control.

In 1976, the Polisario Front began fighting a guerrilla war against Morocco in the Western/Moroccan Sahara, which it argues should belong to the native Saharawis. In September 1991, the UN negotiated a cease-fire - which is still holding - although this depended on a referendum regarding independence.

However, the referendum has still not been held, and seems unlikely to be any time soon, as King Hassan II's successor, King Mohammed VI, stated on accession in 2002 he would "not renounce an inch" of Western/Moroccan Sahara.

On the domestic front, King Hassan II started a period of political and economic liberalisation in the 1990s dubbed "Hassanian democracy", a process continued by his successor, King Mohammed VI. King Hassan died in August 1999.

In 1999, Mohammed VI ascended to the Moroccan throne just prior to his 35th birthday. The young king accelerated the more liberal trends that began late in his father's rule.

In his first speech as king, he promised the amnesty of nearly 50,000 prisoners and apologised for past political repressions. More significantly, he sacked the powerful and much feared long-time head of the security forces, the infamous 'Butcher Basri'.

Mohammed VI has shown himself to be most innovative in the field of social policy, and more specifically, in women's rights.
In 2002, the king married Salma Bennani, a computer engineer - an event that appeared to symbolise acceptance of an increasingly modern role for women. Still, Morocco remains a monarchy in which the limits of political tolerance reflect the king's personal views.

In June 2001, the UN proposed a system of autonomy for Western/Moroccan Sahara within Morocco, with the referendum put off to the long term. Morocco supports the plan, though the Polisario front does not. The conflict has long soured relations with Algeria, which supports Polisario's cause. Since 1994, the land border between Algeria and Morocco has been closed. A recent rapprochement between the two governments seems likely to see the border reopened.

In July 2002, Moroccan troops took over the Parsley Islands, a group of tiny islets off the Moroccan coast claimed by Spain. The dispute that followed was resolved peacefully, with Spain rapidly reoccupying the islands. However, a certain tension in relations remains.

For the past decade, however, Morocco has opposed the referendum. In 2002, King Muhammed VI reasserted that he “will not renounce an inch of” Western Sahara.

On May 16, 2003, terrorists believed to be associated with al-Qaeda killed 33 people in several simultaneous attacks. Four bombs targeted Jewish, Spanish, and Belgian buildings in Casablanca. In the 2004 terrorist bombings in Madrid, Spain, numerous Moroccans were implicated.

The government adopted landmark changes to the Moudawana, or Family Law in 2004, aimed at 'lifting the inequity imposed on women, protecting children's rights, and safeguarding men's dignity'. The new legislation grants unprecedented rights and protections for women concerning marriage, divorce and custody of children.

At a different level, investment in new roads, the widespread introduction of electricity, the provision of better sanitation and a huge number of social housing developments are all improving the daily lives of average Moroccans.

For all these signs of progress, however, the Moroccan leadership's unstinting support for the US-led war on terror has alienated many, pushing some Moroccans into the arms of the extremists who carried out the 2003 Casablanca and 2004 Madrid terrorist bombings.

The government has responded in kind, shelving human rights protections and thereby drawing the battle-lines for a potential future conflict for the soul of Morocco. At the same time, Morocco continues to risk alienating international opinion by refusing to yield on the stalemate that is the Western Sahara.

A wave of suicide bombings struck Casablanca in March and April 2007. Authorities were not certain if the attacks were related.

Last Updated on Monday 4th August 2008